Friday, October 21, 2011

Earth Oven - The oldest method of cooking

Looking for a new way to cook while camping?  Why not try cooking in an earth oven?  There are no special tools or equipment required to create an earth oven.  All that's needed is a shovel, rocks, seaweed (or wet grass), and an adventurous spirit. 

We celebrated Thanksgiving 2011 by camping and experienced our first earth oven cook out.  If you have never heard of or tried cooking in an earth oven, I must tell you, it is fabulous.  It's one of the oldest methods of cooking that has been used by every culture on every continent.  Dig a hole in the ground, fill it with fire, add your food, cover, and cook. 

The whole experience brought a group of campers together for a unique experience.  We all contributed to the meal in some way, either with food or labour.  We sat around the fire for hours speculating and commenting on how the food was doing down there.  When it was time to dig the food out, everyone was around watching and waiting for the first sight and smell of our meal.... and yummy it was!

First step in creating an earth oven is dig a hole, nothing fancy about that.  Just pick up a shovel and dig.  Of course it is best to have the strong handsome one dig, purely for entertainment.  No longer is cooking a woman's job!

Once the pit is about 3-4 feet deep and about 2-3 feet wide, start laying rocks down flat on the bottom. Flatter rocks work better but any will do. The rocks will become the source of heat for the earth oven.

(It is the steam from the seaweed that creates the process required to cook.) 

Creating the earth oven is simple and so is heating up the rocks.  Nothing but good old fashioned fire!  To add a little bit of adventure and entertainment, try different fire starting techniques.  Nothing is more rewarding that starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together. 

Show off your survival skills by using a pair of glasses and sun to start that spark.  Unfortunately here on the west coast, the sun may not always be on your side. 

No matter how the fire is started it needs to burn until flames are no longer visible. 

Once the fire has died down to hot coals, a couple options are available.  Seaweed or green vegetation can be thrown on top of the coals, then the food followed by dirt. 

Another method is trying to remove as many coals as possible then add the seaweed, then the food followed by dirt.  This eliminates the fear of food, or what the food is wrapped in, from burning. 

The seaweed provides the protection and steam required for cooking.  Gathering the seaweed or green vegetation is a way to allow others to contribute to the process. 

Not everyone enjoys digging a hole but most people enjoy strolling along the beach.  It's also a great way for the children to participate and feel like they have contributed in some way. 

What kid does not like beach combing?

OK, so we have the pit dug, the rocks prepared, seaweed collected and fire burned down.  Great!  Now what do we cook? 

Think of the earth oven like a crock pot.  Throw all the ingredients in at the same time and cook together.  Our meal consisted of two whole chickens with rosemary, fresh whole garden potato's, and peeled yams.  Some whole mushrooms, a couple garlic cloves, and corn still in it's husks. 

That was enough to feed 9 adults and 6 children and then some!  Other ideas would be salmon, clams, mussels, or carrots.  We wrapped the food in tin foil and then in wet burlap bags.  There is not a lot of time between the coals being removed and seaweed thrown on top of the rocks so its best to have the food ready to go while the fire is still burning down.  When placing the burlap bags into the steaming pit, be sure to keep the top of the bag as close to the surface as possible. 

Use caution when placing dirt on top and ensure the tops not buried.  This will come in handy later when digging the bags back out.  It prevents the risks of having to dig down deep for the bags and puncturing one, ruining the meal you have waited hours for.  Don't want to be that guy.

When the times comes to dig the food out expect a large gathering anticipating the first sights and smells of the food.  I found the experience of cooking with an earth oven just as rewarding as eating the meal. 

It will be something to talk about for years.  Cooking time for our meal was six hours and everything was cooked to perfection.  

I felt a sense of accomplishment knowing that we do not always have to rely on modern conveniences to get the job done. Cooking with an earth oven can be hit or miss. 

If your trying it for the first time having a back up plan is not a bad idea.  When successful the results are amazing!

Where we were

Cooking with an earth oven was not the only adventure on our Thanksgiving weekend.  Blessed with good weather we were able to camp in our tents for one last time before the winter rains begin.  Usually our definition of camping involves backpacking or setting up camp in some remote location.  This time we opted to camp in style at the Tsa-Kwa-Luten campground on Quadra Island. 

Quadra Island is an island off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.  It is part of the Discovery Islands and is separated from Vancouver Island by the Discovery Passage.  The Tsa-Kwa-Luten campground is located on the southern end of Quadra Island. 

We were able to hike along the shore where Cape Mudge Lighthouse marks the southern entrance to Discovery Passage. Though a seemingly tranquil spot passed by ferries and cruise ships headed for Alaska, just a few miles north lie the dreaded Seymour Narrows, which George Vancouver described as “one of the vilest stretches of water in the world.”

During our shoreline hike, we were treated to many special moments the Discovery Passage has to offer.  Harbour seals and California sea lions were hunting and catching salmon in the kelp beds just off shore.  There was no hiding their catch. 

Gulls arrived immediately after the seal slapped the salmon around.  Then it was a game of who eats first, the gulls or the seal?  After many attempts to hide, the seal finally gave to temptation, sharing his catch with the gulls.

We thought seeing a school of Pacific white sided dolphins was special then the Orca made an appearance.  I have lived on Vancouver Island for over 4 years and this is my first Orca sighting. 

I stood on the beach speechless and followed what we believe to be a female with her young cub travel through the Discovery Passage.  Once Ben (6) and Liv (4) spotted them, they too were mesmerized with their presence.  I was thankful to share a moment with these magnificent creatures.

Sometimes I  get caught up in thinking I have to trek deep into the forest to appreciate being outdoors.  There is beauty in civilization and we were able to capture some great shots proving just that.

Night lights of Campbell River, BC
Flock of Cormorants crossing Seymour Narrows


Next time you are planning a large group camping trip, why not try cooking in an earth oven?  It's a great event for everyone to enjoy, young and old.  If your looking for the perfect spot to create this once in a lifetime experience, look no further than Quadra Island.

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